People are always trying to find natural or homeopathic remedies to treat medical conditions. Some of these treatments are based in scientific research and facts, while others are just a complete scam. However, sometimes a product found in nature can be used to develop effective treatments or medications. Penicillin is a great example. This antibiotic that has forever changed public health, is developed from a fungus found in nature. Similarly, researchers have recently discovered a potential arthritis treatment that is derived from brown algae. Though it is still in the early phases of research, the results thus far are promising.
Overview of arthritis
There are two different types of arthritis. Rheumatoid Arthritis is an autoimmune disease that causes an inflammatory reaction in the joints in the body, resulting in pain, swelling, and stiffness. Autoimmune means that the body’s immune system attacks itself. These types of conditions are difficult to treat because suppressing the immune system to prevent complications of the condition can lead to other problems and illnesses as well. In addition, providers do not fully understand why and how the body’s immune system attacks these joints. Osteoarthritis is joint damage that is caused by normal wear and tear. This results in a loss of cartilage between the joints and in many cases inflammation of the joints. There can also be a complete loss of cartilage which results in the bones rubbing directly against each other. This is extremely painful and can really limit people’s ability to go about their daily routine. Both conditions are chronic and worsen over time. This often has a negative effect on many aspects of the individual’s life.
Current treatments for arthritis mainly focus on the symptoms and include drugs such as anti-inflammatory medications and/or pain killers. Since the disease is progressive, the next option often involves replacing the affected joint entirely. It would be great if medication were developed that addressed the cause and halted the progression of the disease.
Overview of the research
Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (EMPA) are looking at a new way to treat arthritis. Laboratory tests that were led by Marcy Zenobi-Wong of ETHZ (a science, technology, and math university in Zurich) and Katharina Maniura from EMPA in collaboration with the Norwegian company SINTEF (the largest independent research organization in Sacndinavia) have used brown algae components to identify a substance that could stop cartilage degeneration in arthritis patients. The substance is a polysaccharide alginate that has been extracted from the brown algae. A polysaccharide is a long chain of sugar molecules. This particular polysaccharide alginate can reduce oxidative stress and has shown to have anti-inflammatory effects on cell cultures. It can also suppress the inflammatory reaction that contributes to cartilage cells deteriorating. In addition, this substance is similar in structure to specific biomolecules that are found in cartilage, so it can mimic the effect that cartilage has on joints. These are all key components in treating arthritis.
The researchers took the polysaccharide alginate that was extracted from the stems of the brown algae and modified it. They added sulfate groups to the alginate and then dissolved it. After this they put it into cell cultures to examine the effect that it had on different types of cells. This showed that the alginate can reduce oxidative stress. Oxidative stress can cause cell death and destruction. The number of sulfate groups in the alginate also directly corresponds to the success of the polysaccharide. Adding sulfate groups to the alginate increases it’s ability to reduce oxidative stress.
Looking at things on a molecular level can get complicated, so let’s take a closer look. Oxidative stress is an imbalance between free radicals and the body’s ability to counteract the harmful effects of these free radicals. But what is a free radical? Free radicals are molecules that contain an oxygen that has one or more unpaired electrons (meaning the unpaired electrons are alone or are not shared with another atom). This makes the whole molecule very reactive or unstable. Some of these can then be metabolized in the body and produce very reactive “oxidants.” Some of these reactive oxidants can be harmful while others can be helpful. Some of these oxidants are harmful by interacting with DNA, proteins, or lipids. The oxidants will steal the oxygen from the DNA, protein, or lipids, which then makes them unstable. Since molecules are always trying to be stable, these will then go try to steal oxygens from other molecules. This triggers a chain reaction of free radical reactions.
Antioxidants are molecules that readily donate their oxygen to free radicals thus making them stable and preventing this chain reaction from occurring. Antioxidants are able to donate this oxygen without destabilizing themselves. When there is an imbalance between oxidants and antioxidants, you get oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is not just present in arthritis and other inflammatory reactions. It can also lead to or contribute to many other pathological conditions. Some of these include Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, as well as cancers and gene mutations.
The anti-inflammatory properties of the alginate are promising. Researchers discovered that the alginate is able to down-regulate (or suppress) certain genes that contribute to inflammation. These genes are known to trigger inflammatory reactions in cartilage cells called chondrocytes or macrophages which are cells of the immune system. By suppressing these genes with the alginate, and limiting the inflammatory reactions in arthritis, the hope is that destruction of cartilage will be decreased. The researchers conclude that this substance is most promising as a future treatment for osteoarthritis due to it’s direct effect on cartilage cells and inflammatory reactions.
It will still be a while before we can see the effect in humans. This study is still very new and more research needs to be done. Since the in vitro (laboratory) results are promising the research can continue. The next phase will be to test the substance in animals. If the animal studies show positive results then the researchers can move onto clinical trials where the substance will be studied in humans. This can take a few years, but it is exciting to know that at least there is a potential new product that may be a real breakthrough in arthritis treatments!
With incurable, chronic, and progressive conditions such as arthritis, patients and families often feel a sense of hopelessness and frustration. This is understandable considering their daily life is impacted. Not only do they struggle with extreme pain, but they are limited in their abilities to keep up with their daily activities. Things that many of us take for granted can be difficult or impossible for patients with arthritis. Walking, opening jars of food, and writing can be a painful challenge. While there are surgeries that can replace affected joints, these are extremely painful operations and can be too expensive for some. Additionally, some people may not be candidates for joint replacement due to other conditions. Even though this current research is in the early phases, it offers patients and families hope for the future that better more effective treatments are on the way. This will be interesting research for patients, families, and providers to follow!